Bush's decisions weren't entirely mechanical, of course. The evidence is strong that he had decided to go to war as far back as late May or early June of 2002, about nine months before his conversation with Aznar. But the timing of actually launching the invasion does appear to have been determined by when the invasion would be ready for launching.
This distinction isn't academic, because the transcript has Bush telling Aznar the following:
The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein. It seems that he's indicated that he's willing to go into exile if they let him take 1 billion dollars with him, and all the information that he wants about the weapons of mass destruction. Gadaffi has told Berlusconi that Saddam Hussein wants to go.
Aznar asks if there's any possibility Saddam could be offered a deal to go into exile "with some guarantee." Bush replies, "No guarantee. He's a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, Milosevic would be a Mother Theresa [sic]."
Rumors were floating around at the time of a deal in which war would be averted if Saddam went into exile (where, by the way, he would be much more vulnerable to assassination). But this transcript reveals, for the first time, I think, that there actually were offers on the table and that Bush was well aware of them.
Such a deal was clearly unacceptable to someone of Bush's optimism and self-righteousness. It would have been a huge risk even to a more levelheaded president. But would such a president have casually brushed it aside, given the alternative of a war that would spill much blood and treasure in the brightest of scenarios? (At one point, Bush tells Aznar that a war will cost the United States $50 billion. He turned out to be off by a factor of almost 20; but even at $50 billion, the alternative of an exile deal would have been worth at least considering.)
The transcripts also reveal the shortcomings of a trait that has long been detected by Bush-watchers—his inattention to detail and his failure to enforce high-policy decisions. In talking about the war plans, he tells Aznar, "We're already looking at a post-Saddam Iraq, and I believe there's a good basis for a better future. Iraq has a good bureaucracy and a civilian [sic] society that's relatively strong."
As Bush was soon to discover, there was no plan for a "post-Saddam Iraq" at all—except for one, laid down by Paul Bremer as Order No. 1 of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to demolish that "good bureaucracy" by firing every bureaucrat who was in the Baathist Party, even those who joined only because membership was required to get a job.
Bush wasn't lying about his intention to retain the bureaucracy. As we now know, in early March, the National Security Council—in a meeting of principals, with Bush in charge—approved a postwar policy that drew the line on the issue: Baathists above a certain level, probably around 5 percent of officials, would be barred from government work; those below that level, most of the rank-and-file, would be allowed to stay. It is still not known who reversed the decision (probably Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps Bush himself under his prodding), but reversed it was—and no one was punished for it.
Finally, the transcript puts Bush in a slightly redemptive light on one matter. It suggests—just as the much-misread Downing Street Memos also suggested—that he genuinely thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Several times, he says, "Saddam isn't disarming" or words to that effect. Aznar agrees. "Saddam Hussein hasn't cooperated, he hasn't disarmed," the Spanish leader says at one point. "We should make a summary of his failed obligations and send a more elaborate message."
But the fact that Bush believed his distorted intelligence only highlights a deeper failing in his administration, in his character—and a sterner demand on the voters in the coming election. It's not enough to pick someone who's honest. The next president also has to be realistic, skeptical, curious, and experienced; he or she has to be decisive but also smart.